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October 24, 2012

Words of Affirmation

You love your spouse, and you show it in many ways, but you rarely put your feelings into words. Talking about emotions doesn't come naturally to you. Maybe you are more comfortable talking about work, your hobbies, politics, or the weather. Or maybe you feel really good sharing a companionable silence, performing a task together without the need to chat about it, or sitting comfortably next to your partner while you read a book or watch TV.

But the person you married doesn't share your point of view. He or she wants you to talk about your feelings, especially your feelings about the relationship, and feels neglected when that doesn't happen. Perhaps you've been accused of being an uncaring person, despite all the ways you show your love, because your spouse wants you to say it. And just saying "I love you" at appropriate times doesn't seem to be enough. He or she wants more, and you don't have a clue what else you can say.

If you married someone who craves "words of affirmation" as the ultimate expression of love, there is good news. You can learn to deliver what your partner wants, without spending any money and without using much energy. You will have to invest some thought, and you may have to overcome a little bit of shyness, but it will be well worth the effort.

First, understand what is meant by words of affirmation. According to the dictionary, an affirmation is a declaration that something is true. When you affirm something, you recognize its truth and you say so. We use words of affirmation to acknowledge our recognition and appreciation of our spouse's good qualities, and to confirm the special feelings we have for each other. Words can inspire our mates to see themselves in a more positive way and encourage them to achieve more in life. Words can help us understand each other and bring us closer together.

In the context of a loving relationship, words of affirmation fall into four main categories: expressions of emotion, appreciation, encouragement, and communication.

Expressions of emotion tell others what we are feeling. The most famous and obvious of these is "I love you." It is also the most overused. It can be powerful, but just reciting it in an automated fashion may not have the desired effect.

When talking about any emotion, sincerity matters. Saying, "Yes, of course I love you" in a bored tone is not likely to warm your partner's heart. Talking about the real feelings you have at the moment is much more effective. For example: "It feels so good to be here with you", "I wish I could hold you like this forever", "When you smile at me like that I just melt inside". Or, in a more general sense: "I can't imagine life without you", "You're the best thing that has ever happened to me". If you need help putting your feelings into words, try studying the love and romance section in the greeting card aisle.

Appreciation includes compliments, gratitude, and noticing positive things about the other person. "You look beautiful", "Thanks for the candy" and "You have great taste in shoes" are all examples of appreciation.

Compliments are best when they are personal. For example, "That's a nice dress" is okay, but "You look great in that dress" is better.

Gratitude is appropriate for anything helpful or loving that your partner does, even if it is part of the normal course of events. "Thanks for helping me with the dishes", "I really appreciate how good you are at getting the kids off to school in the morning" and "That foot rub felt so good" are examples. Adding details about why you are grateful is especially nice: "Thanks for going out of your way to pick up my dry cleaning. It made my day so much easier."

Mentioning positive things about your partner shows that you are paying attention. "Have I told you lately how much I appreciate how patient you are with my mother?" "You are always so efficient about getting the bills paid on time."

A comment that includes something negative, sarcastic or hostile is not a form of appreciation. For example, "I'm so glad you finally got around to taking the trash out" is not gratitude and "This haircut is so much better than that awful combover you used to have" is not a true compliment.

Encouragement makes the marriage stronger because it supports each partner's development. Perhaps your partner's dream is to go back to school and become a teacher. Maybe he or she wants to learn a foreign language, ask for a raise, be a published author, go jogging on the Great Wall of China, or train the dog to waltz. Your words of encouragement may take the form of discussions about how to fit this into an already busy life, working out a budget, or explaining how you will participate or help. Maybe all you have to do is say, "I think you should do this. I know that you can succeed."

Encouragement does not include listing all the potential problems or reasons not to do something. Your partner already knows the obstacles. Your job is to help him or her see that the obstacles can be overcome.

Communication covers everything else! Whenever you need to make a request, respond to a comment, or convey some information, you can choose to do it with love and kindness. Speaking with sarcasm, boredom, reluctance, contempt or anger does not foster positive feelings in either of you. Even if your partner has presented you with an angry complaint, see if you can stay calm and respond with empathy. When it's your turn to make a complaint, think about the way you do it. "You didn't help me clean out the garage, you lazy pig" is not loving and not likely to get a positive reaction. "I felt lonely and overwhelmed when I had to clean the garage by myself" is much kinder. If you have made a mistake or wronged your partner in some way, instead of getting defensive or trying to share the blame, consider an honest apology and an offer to repair the damage.

In general, using words of affirmation means expressing positive emotions, showing appreciation, offering encouragement, and communicating with kindness and empathy. Your partner will feel more secure in your love and the connection between the two of you will gradually become stronger and happier.
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